Film Notes - Some Reviews from The Fire Island News

Mission Impossible 2

“Good morning, Mr. Cruise...your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to give us a sequel with a plot that we can follow, packed with heart-stopping effects, sparkling visuals...and, yes, Hitchcock suspense.” The first Mission movie was a mere warm-up to this red-hot thriller that grabs us from the opening frame...and never lets go...never lets up...and never cools down.
Tom Cruise has become a fine-tuned, well-oiled machine; he’s a lean, chiseled, perfect sculpture, and while Tom is able to emote as well as other good actors, in this film he uses his body language to unleash the character. Even the villain is aware of Tom’s killer smile. And when Tom appears in a doorway amid smoke and slow circling pigeons, it’s like experiencing the Second Coming. Well done, Tom. Unlike Mission I, in which the story was muddled, this time the MI team used the KISS method (Keep It Simple, Stupid), and borrowed the plot from Hitchcock’s Notorious to create a blockbuster, high wire, high-tech act with no nets and no hands. The mission: agent must recruit beautiful woman with a past; agent and woman fall in love (in about as long as it takes for the famous tape to self-destruct); agent learns that woman is enlisted to rekindle a romance with former lover (bad guy) in order to procure information on a deadly virus (Hitch’s McGuffin-right?). The villain, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) is plotting to steal the deadly stuff and leak it on to the Populus. Ambrose is also in possession of the antidote, which he is willing to dispense for a hefty price. Mr. Scott is not as colorful as Dr. Evil, nor does he operate from a hollowed-out volcano. His lair, instead, is a house reminiscent of the one in North by Northwest. We almost sympathize with his bewilderment (just as we did with Claude Rains in Notorious) when he learns of the woman’s deception. I said ‘almost’ - remember Claude’s scary mother?! Thandie Newton portrays Nyah Hall, the beautiful woman. Newton is lovely looking, and because she is an active participant of the story, and not just a trophy for a hormonal-driven super agent, she’s much more credible than any of the Bond beauties; however, she lacks the sexual electricity of Rene Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair, or Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment. And, let’s face it - no one can ever come anywhere near Ingrid Bergman! Movie making is a risky business. But Tom Terrific has arrived as the new millennium’s super action hero. Bye-bye Bond...kiss off, Keneval..Hasta la vista, Arnie. There’s a new man in town. Mission accomplished.

An Ideal Husband

Secrets, lies, blackmail, passion and a conniving Film makers of the 1900's could have a field day with those adding a good amount of nudity, four-letter words, and gratuitous violence. But, Oscar Wilde, playwright of the 1890's, served up a saucy confection of biting wit, without firing a missile, and using words actually found in Webster’s...and without exposing even a naked elbow.
Some viewers will find An Ideal Husband too stiff and too far removed from today’s society. After all, one hundred years ago, a woman’s ambition was as constrained as her cinched and laced wardrobe, and her primary role was to honor her husband, look demure, and have tea. Men were groomed to be industrious, honest gentlemen, loving and protective of the weaker sex. Wilde presents us with the rule, and very intelligently, the exceptions.
Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), a downright, upright, forthright gentleman and husband, is married to Gertrude (Cate Blanchett), an adoring wife of high moral character and standards. Early in his parliamentary career, Sir Robert leaked government information to a baron, for a price. The dirty little secret has been buried since. Mrs. Cheveley, played deliciously and devilishly by Julianne Moore, and old acquaintance of Gertrude, and former wife of the information-receiving baron, has in her possession, a damaging letter regarding the transaction. She threatens to expose Sir Robert unless he agrees to reverse his position on a construction project, one that will keep Mrs. Cheveley in Gucci.
Sir Robert’s best friend is Lord Goring (Rupert Evertt), the quintessential bachelor, who majors in charm, elegance and idleness. His observation on relationships is, “To love onself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” Goring does, however, find another object for his affection. He falls, reluctantly, for Mabel, Sir Robert’s young sister, played coyly by Minnie Driver.
Mrs. Cheveley decided to thwart the romance by devising a scheme to make Goring her husband number three - not a very ideal one, probably. Here’s where Goring shows that he’s made of more than just witty quips and manicured fingers waving ta-ta at parties. An Ideal Husband is a pleasant waltz, dressed up in taffeta and plumes, set in 19th century time, gliding through beautiful sets and smart dialogue. A nice change.

American Beauty

Life and Other Deaths in the Burbs American Beauty is a dark comedy that fades to tragic black. It's a manicured lawn with carefully clipped hedges, hiding the moles and vermin that lie beneath the surface. It's a shiny paint job covering termites. It's a perfect little community, immaculate streets and cozily appointed houses with pristine gardens whose intentions are to shelter those killers of the human spirit...mid-life crises, sexual frustration, misunderstood adolescence and homophobia. It's the American dream gone nightmare. It's suburbia through a microscope. We are invited in, and become the proverbial fly on the wall via Allan Ball's exquisite script, to observe a family in pain, the pain that comes from the realization that this is as good as it gets, and its subsequent rebellion against the sources of that pain.

American Beauty whacks us with a man's cognizant dissidence flavored with self-deprecating irony. Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham (to the absolute power), a man who knows he's dead in almost every way, and announces to us, at the film's onset, that he'll be really dead within a year. He has virtually no relationship with his wife and daughter, so when we seem them seated with them seated at the perfectly set dinner table while ‘elevator music' plays, we understand the absurdity of the ‘normal' nuclear family.

Lester's resurrection happens at his daughter's cheerleading performance, when, as he's watching, he becomes transfixed on her classmate, Angela, and wham!...everything changes in that moment as Lester decides that he's willing to defect from his life for a roll in the hay with Angels. He quits his job, starts working out, smokes some dope, and listens to 70's rock music. While Lester is pumping iron, and fantasizing about his moment of bliss with Angela, his wife Angela (Annette Bening in an electrifying cat-on-a-hot-tin roof performance) is pumping a local real estate hot shot in a local hot-sheet motel. Meanwhile, their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch) finds a soul mate in her new neighbor, Ricky (Wes Bentley). Ricky's father is played by Chris Cooper. Cooper gives a commanding and chilling performance as Ricky's gun-collecting, ex-Marine father, who, in the end, serves up the film's final irony.

American Beauty cuts through the surface of and American family, and exposes the sad truth about happiness, success, desire and illusion. It's no wonder that this film won a shelf load of awards, including the Best Picture Oscar.

A note: There's a little film, The Ref, in which Kevin Spacey plays a character named Lloyd. I suggest you take a look at his performance, and perhaps you will agree that it is remarkably similar to Lester.


Shadows, Fog, and Morality at Play in the Midnight Sun

When a successful foreign film is placed in the hands of an American director, chances are that the final cut will be an over-done, Hollyood-ized, blown-up version of the original, produced mainly for the cheap-thrill minded audience with an attention span limited to overt shoot-‘em-up action fillers, and an even more limited appreciation of human psychological inner reaction analyses. Not so with Insomnia, the remake of the Erik Skjolbjaerg's 1997 Norwegian film noir on ice.

For his first venture since his brilliantly inventive sleeper-hit, art film, Memento, director Christopher Nolan chose to remake the Norwegian cat-and-mouse thriller of the same name, a two-fold challenge. First, Memento is a difficult film to follow because of its originally layered script, and secondly, it takes guts to remake a winning movie close on the heels of the original. No problem for Nolan. Working from a tight, character-driven script by Hillary Seitz, he fleshes out the story, moves the set from Norway to Alaska (keeping the nowhere-to-hide-from-the-light suspense), adds an award-winning cast, and the result is an intense, eerily claustrophobic, and mentally-meaty film that surpasses Skjolbjaerg's. Will Dormer (Al Pacino), a veteran Los Angeles police detective is, well, tired. Bone tired, physically exhausted, consumed with a smoting conscience, and plagued by nightmares during his brief moments of sleep. Dormer is a legend in his department, with an impeccable reputation. However, an investigation begins that could change all that. His partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) may be cooperating with the District Attorney which feeds Dormer's fears, and fuels tension between the detectives. So, to keep them far away from Internal Affairs, they're shuttled north to Alaska to investigate the murder of a 17 year old girl. Arriving in the small town of Nightmute, Alaska, and even before he gets off the plane, Dormer (a name-play-on-words...a place to sleep?) is haggard and heavy-eyed, and about to be even more sleepless in Alaska, as he plunges into a psycho-nightmare with eyes wide open.

Recent memories of Al Pacino's character portrayals immediately bring to mind the brash and boisterous OOH-HAA! Colonel in Scent Of A Woman, and the egomaniacal, bombastic Satan in Devil's Advoacte. But it's the Pacino from The Godfather trilogy and Donnie Brasco, where he reigns in the guilt and self-doubt and wears well his weariness, that we see here. Dormer is a haunted, hollow man, drunk with fatigue, teetering on the edge of morality, but still willing to compromise with a killer. Pacino pulls out all his emotional plugs, reaches down to his socks, and pulls out his best performance in years.

Dormer's other nemesis is the relentless sun of the Alaskan summer. The light is a symbolically taunting, accusatory beam of Judgment from which there is no escape. Just as in Fargo, where miles and miles of glaring snow played as an abysmal trap, so does the sun and ice and freezing water of Insomnia almost make us forget that the film is in color, for it has all the shadows and fog of a 40's film noir. The fog, however, is not just scenery, it is the thrust that brings the killer to light. During a stakeout in the woods, in the midst of thick fog, Dormer shoots his partner, Hap, by mistake. Easy enough to cover up...blame it on the suspect...except that the killer witnessed the shooting. The killer: brace yourself for a chilling performance by Robin Williams as Walter Finch, a hack mystery writer, drowning in self-pity. Finch doesn't appear until about a half-hour into the film, and becomes the movie's "inciting incident." Robin Williams has certified himself a great comedic actor, but ironically, his serious roles have brought more critical acclaim. As Finch, Williams reveals another layer...he can play a brutal murderer with uncanny dexterity. In an unsettling and nerve-splitting scene, Finch and Dormer go nose to nose in a devilishly clever dialogue exchange in which they try to "reason" with each other. Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank) is the local Nightmute cop originally assigned to the case. She's a young and earnest officer, eager to solve the big case in the small town. Burr has always been in awe of the famous Dormer, but her hero-worship is put to the test, as her suspicions elevate. Christopher Nolan is fairly faithful to the Norwegian original, except for a few inspired script changes. Nolan's in the big league now, and to cooperate somewhat with current film-making requirements, he obliged with the big shoot-out ending, and the inevitable chase scene, albeit, nicely done. Nightmute, Alaska claims to be the "Halibut Fishing Capital of the World," but there is nothing fishy about Insomnia. However, I do smell Oscars, even from this far away.

Sum of All Fears

2 Super Powers, One Instigator and One Hero Add Up To An Intelligent Sum-mer Thriller

Paraphrasing from a line from The Sum Of All Fears: "They said Hitler was crazy...he wasn't crazy, he was stupid...he should have let the Americans and the Russians fight each other, and when they eliminate each other, Hitler's world domination would have been inevitable..." That sums of the plot of this intelligent game of intelligence, adapted from Tom Clancy's 1991 thriller about a current-day missile crisis, orchestrated by a neo-Nazi group of terrorists to incite a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviets, with the idea that after the Big Guys annihilate each other, their New World Order will prevail. The Powers are so busy playing the game of "You Started It First," each loses sight of the possibility that a third party might be responsible for a bomb that explodes during the Super Bowl.

The one guy who knows the truth is Jack Ryan, a CIA rookie, who may be wet behind the ears, but packs some pretty sharp gray matter between them. The problem is that no one is listening. His theory is continually shrugged off, and at every level in the Department, and even in the Executive Office, his pleadings are met with "go-away-kid-you-bother-me" dismissals. Ryan is assigned as an analyst on the new Russian president, Alexander Nemerov, because he wrote a paper on Nemerov years before. His job is primarily a public relations one, called in to offer information about the man, now that he is President. Ryan's knowledge of Nemerov extends beyond the scope of biographical data. He understands the inner workings of Nemerov; he knows how he thinks; he knows his psychology and ideologies. Ryan is certain that Nemerov is incapable of launching the attack, but can he convince our President in time to prevent a global catastrophe?

Sum is a rigid knot of intrigue, difficult to follow in the beginning of the film. An American-made nuclear warhead that went down with an Israeli plane is discovered after almost thirty years by some guys (who don't know what it is) who sell it for a few hundred bucks to an underground arms dealer, who flips it for a few million bucks to a neo-Nazi European faction, who uses it to pit the U.S. against Russia. Got it? The kinks quickly unravel after the horrific bombing, and the tension builds to fever pitch. It's always good to see the political correctness in using Nazis as bad guys...why not? We're happy to offend them.

It is not necessary to try to figure out how Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) is only in his twenties in the year 2001, when he was already in his thirties in the eighties when Harrison Ford handled the role. And, some of the script is unrealistic in terms of Ryan's sleuthing and heroics, given the one-hour time clock in which he races against to get his message across. Those little incidentals are insignificant compared to the disturbing message, especially in the wake of September 11th. Before that terrible day, this film would have been impossible to conceive, just a thrilling piece of fiction. Now we know better, and so Sum does not bring us too close to the details of the impact and radioactive aftermath of a nuclear attack.

Instead, it renders one swift and shocking blow, and hurls everything and everyone into a state of confusion. The action scenes are mercifully screened and shadowed, but we are, nonetheless, reawakened to a surprise attack. In the middle of the chaos is Ryan, desperately trying to communicate with the President, who is just as confused and bewildered. The opposing presidents, anxiously look to their respective advisors and get handed the "hawk vs dove" reflex responses.

As President Fowler, James Cromwell approaches the role realistically. He doesn't wave flags and talk rhetorical nonsense. Fowler is at the football game when the bomb strikes, and is quickly whisked away to the safety of Air Force One, where he must decide the nation's fate from the sky. The lavishness of Air Force One is a non-issue here. It looks more like a tiny prop plane, meant to heighten the suspense by showing cramped quarters with very little air. He's scared, but handles the catastrophe with sturdiness and dignity. But, mostly he's incensed, and in a moment of the realization of his own mortality, exclaims, "They tried to kill me!"

Ryan's unofficial mentor, Bill Cabot is played by the smooooth Morgan Freeman. Cabot is a high ranking CIA member with unfettered access to Russian security. Cabot is a diplomat of the highest order, stern and determined, but with a quirky sense of humor, and it's his playful "jokes" on the naive Ryan that is chiefly responsible for the film's comic relief.

Ben Affleck is a different Jack Ryan than Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford. Yes, he's younger and greener, but Sum is more of an ensemble piece, so we're not always focused on the adventures of Dr. Ryan. The movie is bigger than his role. Affleck is effective and charming as the eager-beaver, and hopefully we'll see him again in the next Tom Clancy adaptation. And, hopefully, the next installment will find a relevant part for Dr. Cathy Muller, Ryan's love interest (who we already know as Mrs. Ryan). Her only function in the film is to provide Ryan with a happy-ending partner.

Other supporting roles are much more significant. We are accustomed to seeing Liev Schreiber in more intellectual parts, but he is powerful as a down and dirty CIA field agent. Alan Bates, the Nazi of few words, moves through the action with appropriate haughtiness. The Soviet leader (Ciaran Hinds) communicates his vulnerability, even though he never blinks. In support of President Fowler is a fine crew of actors that include Philip Baker Hall and Ron Rifkin.

The Sum of All Fears is a precise mathematic profile in courage and realism. Even with the smiles and pats-on-the-back, job-well-done, lovers-on-the-lawn, Hollywood ending, it's still two hours of intelligent filmmaking.

The Thomas Crown Affair

Pierce Brosnan takes a vacation from Her Majesty's Secret Service, sends his white dinner jacket to the cleaners, blows a kiss to Moneypenny, leaps to the other side of the law, and has a smashing good time as debonaire billionaire thief in The Thomas Crown Affair.

Thomas Crown (Brosnan) steals a priceless Monet from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The smart (and sexy) insurance investigator, Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), concludes readily that he is the perpetrator. One look at Rene Russo, and men everywhere will be ling up for her full coverage policy. Banning teams up with a police detective (Denis Leary) to catch the tricky thief, but Crown is much too clever for them, and his antics leave them baffled. The frustrated investigators are sufficiently shaken and stirred when Crown returns the painting to the museum, smack in the middle of the day, right in front of security cameras, in a particularly artful and amusing sequence a-la Hitchcock. So, why did he steal the painting in the first place? Well, I won't spill the beans, but Crown does confide the reason for his compulsion to his analyst, played by Faye Dunaway.

In 1968's Crown Affair, Ms. Dunaway (the investigator) and Steve McQueen play a sexy, suggestive chess game, seductively moving the pieces around the board, staring at each other in lustful anticipation, while we listen to the Oscar-winning song, The Windmills of Your Mind. (I promptly purchased a chess set and set up the board, where the pieces remained rigidly stationary for five years. Hey! We're not all Fay...) This version dropped some of the subtlety, as Brosnan swiftly checks and mates Russo, but in 1999, little is left to the imagination that circles the windmills of our minds.

Brosnan gives a performance in the style of Cary Grant, exuding charm, suavity and wit, while never giving himself away. Rene Russo openly displays her va-va-va-voom sexuality, but her image of a forty-something, trust-no-one, spiritually jaundiced woman, is more revealing than her dress.

Although the plot may appear to be manufactured from excess components of similar catch-me-if-you-can, romantic thrillers, this movie does not attempt to play one-upsy - it fares on its own, and a little better than others. Crown Affair combines steamy with sophisticated; it is both restrained and unleashed. It has fun with itself. It knows it's a movie